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New social media experiment: Tracking India's growing addiction to ASMR content

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The Economic Times
24th August, 2019 23:00 IST

Ishtaarth Dalmia, 25, is considered an expert on ASMR at his office in Bengaluru. In the last week itself, he says, three of his colleagues have asked him: “Bro, what is ASMR?”

It is short for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, he tells them. The expansion, not the easiest to parrot, is codified in his brain now, says the anthropologist, who works at a digital agency. But the expansion alone doesn’t help. Dalmia says ASMR describes the tingling sensation on the skin caused by auditory stimuli like gentle tapping, whispering, scratching, food crunching, soap cutting or by visual stimuli like watching origami paper-folding and neat painting strokes.

ASMR has become a rage in India. According to Google Trends, the interest in the term has been high since the last one year, peaking to 100 in October, and the curiosity for such content is the highest in Mizoram, Nagaland and Meghalaya.

In the United States, ASMR became a thing nine years ago after Jennifer Allen, a cybersecurity professional, came up with the term. Until then, the unnamed sensation was called “brain tingles” or “brain orgasms”. Even ASMR is not a scientific term.

Since then, ASMR content has grown into a massive market. Leading ASMRtists or content creators making videos to provide triggers for ASMR are said to earn between $10,000 and $15,000 per video from YouTube.

The video-sharing platform has millions of ASMR videos — of people gently whispering about anything from an iPhone review to a bedtime story. In some videos, ASMRtists use special microphones to enhance the quality of familiar sounds like that of a hairbrush brushing against the scalp, a Scotch-Brite scrubbing against a vessel, the crunching sound from eating food items. (The food ASMR genre, called mukbang, originated in South Korea the same year Allen coined the umbrella term).

Comments pouring in on these videos reflect a pattern: that the content helps anxiety-prone people relax. Insomniacs consume it to fall asleep. Word is that ASMR videos have a calming effect and help relieve stress.

Scientific research backs some of these anecdotal claims. Last year, a study by the University of Sheffield in the UK revealed the physiological benefits of ASMR. “Those who experience the phenomenon had reduced heart rates while watching ASMR videos compared to people who do not experience ASMR,” the study said. Not everyone experiences ASMR.

There are five billion views for videos hashtagged #ASMR on TikTok and 7.4 million posts on Instagram with the same hashtag. A playlist called “ASMR Sleep Sounds” has over 177,000 followers on the Spotify music-streaming app. Apps like Calm and Headspace that facilitate meditation and help people fall asleep also contain ASMR content. Standalone ASMR apps are also gaining ground.

ASMR extends into retail as well. A cursory check on Amazon throws over 700 ASMR product results across 14 subcategories: ASMR headphones, microphones, slime, chalk & clay, books, spirographs, the list goes on.

Global brands such as IKEA and Gucci, among others, have released ASMR the med campaigns in the recent past that have proven great for business. In the case of IKEA, the company reportedly saw a 4.5% hike in offline sales in the US market, and a 5.1% increase online sales during the duration of the ad campaign in 2017.

ASMR’s India Connection
In February 2019, Mumbai-based YouTuber Heli Ved uploaded a video on how to experience ASMR using Indian household items. One of the comments on Ved’s video — “ASMR coming to India na” — is telling of the phenomenon’s point of entry into Indian popular culture.

Currently, Google throws over 98 mil lion video search results in 0.32 seconds for “ASMR India”.

What is ASMR?
Short for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, the term describes the tingling sensation on the skin caused by certain auditory or visual stimuli, like gentle tapping or touching, soft whispering, origami paper-folding, etc

What does ASMR do?
Several scientific pieces of research suggest the feeling of ASMR helps people sleep, de-stress, feel momentary joy and relaxation.

When & how was the term coined?
US-based cybersecurity professional Jennifer Allen coined the term in 2010 and created a Facebook page titled ASMR to grow the community

Is there a dark side to ASMR?
Experts warn of kids being exposed to adult ASMR content and the likelihood of reduced need for human intimacy in the real world.

Tingles, a US-based app for ASMR videos, gets 600 users from India every month. The app has more than 500,000 Android installs right now. “When we started two years ago, there were only a handful of installations from India — maybe 10 or so. It has been increasing monthly, but it’s nowhere near the level of other countries,” says Miha Mlakar, the app’s chief product officer.

The US has been a trendsetter in many such fads. However, Dalmia doesn’t believe Indians have exactly “latched onto” a foreign trend this time. “In school, I used to put Fevicol on my hand and peel it off. It was a sheer joy. That’s ASMR, and almost every Indian kid has intimately felt it.”

When she was in class 3, YouTuber Ved, now 21, would rub her nails against her arm to get a tingly feeling. “I didn’t know then there was a term to describe it.” Like Ved and Dalmia, many Indians have always known about the phenomenon of ASMR; they now know what to call it.

Indians have also made a contribution to the ASMR rage globally. Videos of Indian barbers showcasing their head massaging techniques have a huge fan following within the ASMR community, says Miguel Gutierrez, a barber from Liverpool in the UK who travels the world to meet other barbers, learn from them, and make documentaries on their lives. In short, he is famous on the internet.

“When you dig deep into the ASMR craze, you’ll find that most of the initial followers would have come across videos of Baba Sen (from Pushkar). A clip of his from 2008 was one of the first viral but non-intentional ASMR videos around. Since then, Indian barbers feature heavily across ASMR channels on YouTube, including my own,” he says.

Sen died of a heart attack last year and his demise prompted Gutierrez to address his fans via a live video streaming session on social media. From the comments, it was evident international ASMR fans were gutted. Such was Sen’s impact. Today, videos of Indian barbers at work are a frenzy on YouTube. Some of the popular channels featuring them bring in 100,000-200,000 subscribers.

Pure Massage World, a YouTube channel run by siblings Akshay and Aditya Jha and dedicated to Indian barbers, earns $500-600 in monthly YouTube ad revenue on average. The brothers from Bihar, now based in Mumbai, have featured over 70 barbers from across India since starting the channel in 2014. “When we started, India contributed to 3% of our viewership. Today, 35% of our views come from India,” says Akshay, who recently quit a content writing job to focus on the channel.

More and more Indians are discovering ASMR in India now, and across genres. Rohit Raj, cofounder of digital agency The Glitch, enjoys horror ASMR. Here, ASMRtists combine the power of audio-visual stimuli to tell a horror story. “The medium lends itself heavily to deliver the chills that no visual can because it uses the imagination of the viewer coupled with the sensory feeling,” says Raj. His agency even tried experimenting with ASMR for brands back in 2013.

I have easily consumed over an hour’s worth of ASMR content at a stretch. I like playing it in the background while working on something stressful or trying to sleep” Heli Ved, YouTuber, Mumbai

Perhaps those were early days for India, says Raj. “Today, brands are more accepting of this piece. However, the fact that headsets are important to drive this experience deters a few brands. They aren’t confident of people consuming it the way it should be, thus hampering the innovation.” Headphones or earphones are essential to experience ASMR Many ASMRtists urge users to wear them at the beginning of each video.

Mumbai-based screenwriter Sulagna Chatterjee often tunes into ASMR content on the Calm app using headphones. “I have an overactive mind and I have realised your mind needs triggers to too. ASMR content, like the sound of mike scratching or paper crumpling, isolates you from external things and helps your mind concentrate on these sounds. It’s like getting massage,” says the 23-year-old.

I would recommend ASMR but only as an SOS, not as a practice. Because if you get addicted to it, you may not feel the need for an actual human connection”
Anshuma Kshetrapal, psychotherapist, Delhi


According to psychologists, ASMR works because all the stimuli are essentially creating a simulation of human touch — something missing from the isolated lives people lead, especially in urban India. is a simulation of human touch without the responsibility of human experience,” says Anshuma Kshetrapal, a creative arts psychotherapist from Delhi. “It is almost like a drug.

ASMR in the World

5 bn views for videos hashtagged #ASMR on TikTok

7.4 mn posts on Instagram hashtagged #ASMR

177K followers of “ASMR Sleep Sounds” playlist on Spotify

100K members on a popular ASMR group on Facebook


700+ items across 14 ASMR subcategories listed Amazon.com

$100 Retail price of ASMR headphones for sleeping by AcousticSheep

If you get addicted, it can be maladaptive in that it can replace your need for an actual human connection.”

A third of her clientele every week brings up ASMR content in their conversations. Some have heard of it, some actively consume it, others liken it to the rush gaming gave them except here they don’t have to kill people on a screen. “I would only recommend it as an SOS, a quick fix. Not as a practice,” Kshetrapal says.

Gurgaon-based Karthik Sridhar and wife Shilpa, both 38, are using ASMR content as a quick fix to engage their “hyperactive” seven-year-old daughter. Their choice of ASMR genre: slime.

When we started the channel five years ago, India contributed to 3% of our viewership. Today, 35% of our views come from India. More and more Indians are discovering ASMR now” Akshay Jha, cofounder, YouTube channel Pure Massage World

“Our daughter doesn’t know what ASMR is. She knows slime gives her satisfaction. Playing with slime or watching slime videos keeps her focused,” says her father. “Her entire age-group is obsessed with slime,” says the mother. The parents also monitor what their daughter is watching since the internet is full of adult ASMR content.


Cashing in on this obsession are young adults. Aged 18-20, these ASMRtists claim to make anywhere between Rs 10-15 lakh a year on average by selling slime online, mainly through Instagram where they upload videos of playing with slime. Dalmia however says kinetic sand is fast replacing slime as the new ASMR fad.

India Trends
98 mn+ video search results in 0.32 sec for “ASMR India” on Google

100k-200k subscribers on leading YouTube ASMR channels featuring barbers giving head massage

$271K estimated YouTube ad revenue for Indian Barber, India’s leading ASMR YouTube channel, since starting in 2017

$500-1,000 monthly ad revenue for leading Indian ASMR YouTube channels featuring barbers

Rs 15-20 lakh reported annual income of Indian “ASMRtists” from selling slime online

1/3rd clients of psychotherapists for anxiety treatment in urban areas mention ASMR in conversation

Source: Google, YouTube, sellers on Instagram, Influencer Marketing Hub, psychotherapists

He says there is so much of ASMR content online that he finds himself consuming a lot of it without actively looking for it. “The autoplay feature for videos on social media platforms, combined with an algorithm-generated feed, works in favour of ASMR content. You’re caught in an endless feed that keeps you engaged,” he says. “People are even uploading videos of their pet dogs chewing different kinds of food items under ASMR,” says Ved, the YouTuber.

Five Popular ASMR Video Genres

Gentle whispers -ASMRtists gently whisper anecdotes and information on different subjects for these videos.

Head massage -Popularised by Indian barbers who create unique tapping sounds while giving a massage.

Food - Videos capturing the crunching sound made while eating certain food items.

Slime & sand - Playing with slime, cutting kinetic sand or soaps.

Horror - Using auditory and visual stimuli to narrate a horror story.

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